San Francisco

USA- Benu- ✪✪✪

Set in the middle of downtown San Francisco, Corey Lee's Benu restaurant is an advanced laboratory of Asian-Fusian cuisine that isn't afraid to try adventuresome, interesting dishes. 

Benu Outer Entrance, Hawthorne Street

Benu Outer Entrance, Hawthorne Street

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA

SERVICE: 7.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $298 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 8.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10

Corey Lee is a rising-star alum of Daniel in New York and the French Laundry in Napa, and is in the process of making a name for himself in the fine-dining world. Benu has only had their third Michelin star since 2014, and the whole place exudes a rockstar vibe that I found very cool. 

With its own beautiful urban courtyard and a gorgeous, understated interior, I found even the walk inside an entrancing start to the evening.

Benu Exterior Courtyard

Benu Exterior Courtyard

Benu Interior

Benu Interior

First Bites: Caviar + Winter Melon + Chicken Cream, 10/10

First Bites: Caviar + Winter Melon + Chicken Cream, 10/10

The first portion of the meal consisted of approximately 10 mini-courses, called Small Delicacies. The first one out was this absolutely stunning winter melon and chicken cream with caviar. There was a nice gel texture in the under layers, and the gold leaf is over-the-top but adds beautiful colors to an already gorgeous dish. Wonderful start. 10/10.

First Bites: Mushroom + Eggplant + Ginkgo, 8/10

First Bites: Mushroom + Eggplant + Ginkgo, 8/10

Next, a small grouping of delicately-plated dishes- mushroom with squash and pine nuts, eggplant uzu, then ginkgo nut. 8/10 overall

First Bite 2 of 10: Mushroom + Squash + Pine Nuts, 9/10

First Bite 2 of 10: Mushroom + Squash + Pine Nuts, 9/10

First Bite 3 of 10: E ggplant + Uzu , 7/10

First Bite 3 of 10: Eggplant + Uzu, 7/10

First Bite 4 of 10: G inkgo Nut,  8/10

First Bite 4 of 10: Ginkgo Nut, 8/10

First Bites Continued: Unlaid Egg + Beggar's Purse + Drunken Chicken, 9/10

First Bites Continued: Unlaid Egg + Beggar's Purse + Drunken Chicken, 9/10

These next three were a really impressive experimentation with textures. A cured, unlaid egg with bacon, a "Beggar's purse" with essence of oak tree, and an Eastern Chinese "drunken chicken" dish with quail jelly. Overall, 9/10.

First Bite 5 of 10: Unlaid Egg  , 10  /10

First Bite 5 of 10: Unlaid Egg, 10/10

The unlaid egg is exactly what it sounds like, and it literally explodes in your mouth under lots of tension- 9/10, a really fascinating dish. 

First Bite 6 of 10: Beggar's Purse  , 8  /10

First Bite 6 of 10: Beggar's Purse, 8/10

The Beggar's purse is full of mushrooms, and unfortunately was a bit dry... 8/10

First Bite 7 of 10: D runken Chicken , 10  /10

First Bite 7 of 10: Drunken Chicken, 10/10

The Quail jelly is firm, and the chicken has great texture- 9/10

First Bite 8 of 10: Eel Taco  , 10  /10

First Bite 8 of 10: Eel Taco, 10/10

Next came an Eel taco wth mountain yam with a tiny micro-lime perched nearby. Great textures with the crunchy shell, and the eel was fresh and delicious. 10/10.

First Bite 9 of 10: BBQ Duck Liver + Pork  , 9  /10

First Bite 9 of 10: BBQ Duck Liver + Pork, 9/10

An amazing square slice of bread with barbecue duck liver and pork, then liver again, with a marinade as the sauce. Nice, strong sherry flavors. 9/10.

Last of the First Bites: Bread + Butter + Honey, 9/10

Last of the First Bites: Bread + Butter + Honey, 9/10

First Course:: "1,000 Year Quail Egg," 9/10

First Course:: "1,000 Year Quail Egg," 9/10

Quail Egg post-Ginger Spice Foam

Quail Egg post-Ginger Spice Foam

A "1,000-year-old quail egg," came next. We were informed that they were actually aged in Korean pots for 4 weeks. Right after serving, a thick cabbage broth with ginger spice and foam was poured over. It had a little spice kick to it, which was almost perfect. 9/10.

2nd Course: Tomato + Celtuce, 7/10

2nd Course: Tomato + Celtuce, 7/10

Tomato and celtuce came next. Celtuce is a vegetable that I had never experienced before- this HuffPost article nicely summed up my response. Strong bruschetta flavors throughout. 7/10.

3rd Course: Lobster Bao, 8/10

3rd Course: Lobster Bao, 8/10

Next came an ornately-served lobster coral Xiao Long bao. Corey offers an extensive explanation of the dish here, but the bao is served super hot and with strong ginger and vinegar flavors. 8/10.

4th Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

4th Course: Sea Urchin, 8/10

Next, a very good marinated sea urchin and fermented crab sauce. The urchin is good, but not Tokyo good. Rich tastes of whole wheat. 8/10

It comes with a not-terribly-photogenic broth.

5th Course: Cucumber + Peanut + Black Truffle, 8/10

5th Course: Cucumber + Peanut + Black Truffle, 8/10

This cucumber dish with peanut and black truffle had a steamed bun off to the side. Very umami and rich. 8/10.

6th Course: Abalone + Iberico Ham, 9/10

6th Course: Abalone + Iberico Ham, 9/10

Next, a whole braised abalone with chicken and Iberico ham. 9/10

7th Course: Beef + Burdock + Wood Ear Mushroom, 10/10

7th Course: Beef + Burdock + Wood Ear Mushroom, 10/10

The beef rib is so tender that it is literally cuttable with butter knife. It comes with a burdock root and Wood Ear mushrooms, and is literally one of the most perfect things I have ever tasted. 10/10

8th Course: "Shark Fin" Soup, 8/10

8th Course: "Shark Fin" Soup, 8/10

So, first and foremost, this isn't real shark fin soup. Dry salt-cured ham from Jinhua gives the soup its flavor- egg white custard at the base with Dungeness crab. 8/10. Another really creative dish. 

9th Course: Kampuchea Tea, 8/10

9th Course: Kampuchea Tea, 8/10

Kampuchea tea- a delicious palate-cleanser. 8/10.

10th Course: Pear Sorbet, 9/10

10th Course: Pear Sorbet, 9/10

An unspeakably soft, beautifully shaped Hosui pear sorbet, 9/10

11th Course: Apricot + Osmanthus Flowers, 10/10

11th Course: Apricot + Osmanthus Flowers, 10/10

A beautiful apricot dessert with Osmanthus flowers and almonds. 10/10

12th Course: Dark Chocolate Sculpture, 9/10

12th Course: Dark Chocolate Sculpture, 9/10

Lastly, a lovely, delicate sculpture of dark chocolate with candied seeds. Big, crunchy, delicious. 9/10.

USA- Saison- ✪✪✪

On February 20th, I sat down to a meal at Joshua Skenes' Saison restaurant, a place that is singular in its execution of a transparent kitchen, novel preparation and aging approaches, and strong on style the whole way through. A huge upside is the unbelievable, personal service from true culinary dorks like myself (and I mean that in the nicest way possible,) most specifically Max the Sommelier and Megan and Christine the waiters. Request them if you can- they're super intelligent, know the content, were super sharp the whole evening. 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA

SERVICE: 9.5/10

FOOD: 9.0/10

PRICE PAID: $423 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 7.5/10

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

Saison Entrance

Saison Entrance

The entrance makes a huge impression- stacks of almond tree wood that ends up in the ember smoker a few feet away in the kitchen. A nice dramatic effect that communicates something about your experience before you even sit. Saison is big about giving closure- ingredients, themes, and flavors from the beginning of your experience come back to wish you farewell at the end, and the symmetry to the evening wasn't lost on me.

1st Course: Meyer Lemon Tea + Garden Herbs, 8/10

1st Course: Meyer Lemon Tea + Garden Herbs, 8/10

Saison has their own farm that supplies many of the herbs and vegetables Saison uses. They serve a small bundle of those herbs with a simple but likable Meyer lemon tea in a thin-walled apparently handmade ceramic cup. This first course presentation is very cool, but one practical downside to the thin cup body with no handle is that the container is piping hot to the touch. Thus, it's quite time-consuming to drink- took me about 15 minutes. 8/10

2nd Course: Garden Peppers + Whipped Buttermilk, 9/10

2nd Course: Garden Peppers + Whipped Buttermilk, 9/10

The second course rode in an equally impressive hand-cut glass plate- complete with cover that stood in as a rest for the wooden spoon- and played up the light hitting the bright green vegetables. The peppers had a nice little spicy kick, and the buttermilk cream smoothes out the rough edges and adds a fantastic texture. Clever presentation, great dish. 9/10.

3rd Course: Osetra Caviar + Garden Herb Gelee

3rd Course: Osetra Caviar + Garden Herb Gelee

The third course of Osetra-grade caviar is served on a gelee of vegetables (once again, from their vertically-integrated garden) with a clear liquid pork fat poured over top. While the smooth gelee serves as a nice foundation and contrasts the mouthfeel of the caviar texture nicely, the pork fat flavor runs a little roughshod over the delicate sea flavors of the caviar. 7/10.

4th Course: Black Cod + Mushroom + Pine, 8/10

4th Course: Black Cod + Mushroom + Pine, 8/10

The fourth course was some Black Cod from Half Moon Bay cooked in a fire with chanterelle and yellowfoot mushrooms. The broth was made of the cod bones. This dish struck me as clever because the mushrooms and cooked cod had similarly squeaky-crunchy texture that went together well. The broth had a lovely campfire smoke taste that finishes the dish with elegance. 8/10.

5th Course: Lobster, 8/10

5th Course: Lobster, 8/10

The fifth course featured lobster meat from the mitts and tail warmed over those almond-wood embers I mentioned a second ago. In the white bowl in the background is a Meyer lemon (catching the theme yet?) and citronet, which was poured over the lobster. The butter is made from the lobster's brains, and a small condensed morsel of dehyydrated and rehydrated seaweed was tucked in the corner of the intricate glass bowl. The lobster's temperature was perfect; pour the cxitronet immediately for maximum effect. 8/10

6th Course: Trout + Roe, 9/10

6th Course: Trout + Roe, 9/10

The sixth dish was Battle Creek Trout cured in uzu and soy, then put in its own eggs with skin to create a potato-chip like shell. The crunchy shell paired beautifully with the uber-soft trout. 9/10.

7th Course: Abalone + Pig Jowls, 8/10

7th Course: Abalone + Pig Jowls, 8/10

Course seven featured abalone, a type of edible sea snail, with rich fatty pork jowls on top. The abalone had a positive, rubbery texture that played off well against very soft jowls. A sauce of liver and capers rested underneath. 8/10

8th Course: Sea Urchin, 10/10

8th Course: Sea Urchin, 10/10

The eighth course can only be described as an out-of-the-park home run. Three different textures battle it out with the focus centered on the unbelievably rich, luxurious sea urchin. I'm tempted into hyperbole and giving this dish an 11/10, but I'll try to restrain myself at a perfect 10/10.

9th Course: Dungeness Crab, 8/10

9th Course: Dungeness Crab, 8/10

Nine challenged me to get over whatever pre-conceived notions I may have had about crab brains- this creamy, pasta-like ragout is made out of "Dungeness Crab- the Whole Thing," or so the menu gamely states. Smooth and creamy like an amazing Mac & Cheese from childhood, with a signature "Saison" smokiness in the custard underneath. 8/10- a fun and creative dish.

10th Course: Seaweed + Garden Herbs, 8/10

10th Course: Seaweed + Garden Herbs, 8/10

The tenth course starts to lighten things up in advance of the main dishes coming soon- Mendocino county seaweed with herbs from the garden washed in Meyer lemon juice (eh? eh? Meyer lemon juice). There's a surprise oyster buried underneath with wonderful dill and leaves of spearmint. A zesty, clever, beautiful dish. 8/10.

11th Course: Brussel Sprouts, 9/10

11th Course: Brussel Sprouts, 9/10

This wholesome, filling vegetable dish is crisped over the almond wood embers, bringing out new and fascinating flavors in the brussel sprouts especially. Sauerkraut on the bottom rounds on the salinity. Delightful, different, impressive. 9/10.

12th Course: Pumpkin, 10/10

12th Course: Pumpkin, 10/10

The 12th dish really shows where Skenes' novel techniques shine. Pumpkin is cooked in two methods- one is hung over the fire for three days using a method called Fire in the Sky (a nice Washington Post article describes the technique and inspiration in more detail), the other is prepared and served more traditionally. I can only say that this was the second dish that totally blew me away- the Fire in the Sky method brings out all kinds of flavors one would never predict in pumpkin- tropical notes like papaya and pineapple, along with a smoky tartness that was a joy to explore. 10/10.

13th Course: Beet, 9/10

13th Course: Beet, 9/10

The thirteenth course featured a beet cooked in the same method as the pumpkin that- I kid you not- tastes exactly like a finely-prepared steak. The beet is a type known as Bull's Blood, which is rich, thick, and chewy. 9/10.

14th Course: Toffee, 9/10

14th Course: Toffee, 9/10

14 included toffee from duck livers, foam, and beer. This dish blurred the line between savory and sweet- it almost had an ice cream-like texture. The toffee flavors in the beer that came paired alongside enhances further. A well thought-out, joyful dish. 9/10.

15th Course: Muscovy Duck, 7/10

15th Course: Muscovy Duck, 7/10

Fifteen was a Muscovy duck with a ragout made of duck innards and a sauce from the cooking juices. The duck was aged in-restaurant for three weeks. I can only describe this dish as unbelievably rich- in this case a touch too rich for me. 7/10.

16th Course: Duck Bullion, 8/10

16th Course: Duck Bullion, 8/10

A bullion made of the roasted bones of the duck from the previous course served as our sixteenth dish. Simple, delicious, and made for a good wind-down from the richness of the previous dish. Might have also been effective to have served this dish and course 15 side-by-side. 8/10

17th Course: Cheese, 8/10

17th Course: Cheese, 8/10

The seventeenth course included a mousseline made from Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, one of the best cheeses available in this country (in my humble opinion). Two beignets were just as good as anything you can get in New Orleans. 8/10.

18th Course: Flame-Roasted Ice Cream, 10/10

18th Course: Flame-Roasted Ice Cream, 10/10

Course 18 was probably my favorite dessert dish of all time- ice cream made from a cow named Vibrance who lives in Lagunitas with salted caramel, cocoa nibs, and roasted over the fire. Perfect texture, sweetness, balance.  A lifetime-memorable dish. 10/10.

19th Course: Buckwheat Tea, 8/10

19th Course: Buckwheat Tea, 8/10

This palate-cleanser tasted just like Honey Nut Cheerios, and has a nice calming aura. Perfect post-ice cream idea. 8/10.

20th Course: Chartreuse, 8/10

20th Course: Chartreuse, 8/10

The Sommelier Max introduced me to this digestif- green chartreuse with a powerful anise flavor- that calmed my stomach before departure. 8/10.

21st Course: Persimmons, 8/10

21st Course: Persimmons, 8/10

The absolute final word was a small broth of persimmons. Simple and cleansing. 8/10.

The Smoker

The Smoker

One last cool note- Max kindly invited me on a kitchen tour where I got to see the almond wood embers firsthand. Each and every evening, a person is tasked with keeping these embers roasting at just the right temperature and evenness to ensure proper preparation. The job requires tons of focus on consistency, and I was impressed that this glowing heart of the kitchen worked so well.